We keep score through togetherness
This may come as a surprise to readers, but you’re not actually in the sports business.
You’re in the identity-and-community business. That’s a valuable — and necessary — market to be in nowadays, both economically and existentially.
But it’s also a tremendously challenging one. And to appreciate what you’re really selling, it’s worth lingering on what your buyer is really needing. We live in a social era plagued by alienation, polarization and fragmentation; sports, by contrast, represent the last experience that gives us collective meaning.
Don’t take it from me — the Harvard social scientist Robert Putnam famously charted that decline in local groups, neighborly trust and shared identity. It’s no coincidence that he chose a sports pastime — bowling — as the metaphor to illustrate communal vitality (or lack thereof).
Simultaneously, cable news showcases the vicious partisanship and information cocoons that define today’s politics. We seek escapism in entertainment, but too often suffer there from pop culture cocoons: smartphone distractions and anti-social media that isolate us alone together; digital and algorithmic content, once broadly cast to mass audiences, now splintered into endless niche interests.
A Fox Sports executive not long ago declared: “Increasingly, we are each a demographic of one,” and, increasingly, he’s totally right.
Peak TV offers great art, sure, but its narrative plot lines are far more befuddling than the hits of previous eras. You can’t “simply” drop in on the “Game of Thrones” season finale and enjoy it without massive time investment beforehand. By contrast, Game 7 of the NBA Finals is considerably less confusing, even if you didn’t catch the first six.
Sports thus maintain the relatable references and collective consciousness that a society needs. They keep that water cooler conversation alive. Little else does that these days.
In an interview, David Stern diagnosed it like this: “As life gets more impersonal, as we retreat into our homes and … we do a tremendous amount from the comfort of our smart devices in a chair at home, the last places that people are likely to gather are going to be … houses of worship and houses of sports worship.”
This, I would argue, is the primary reason that North American sports might top $70 billion this year: They tell us who we are, when that sense of self is increasingly insecure.
Ample academic research affirms this. When it comes to favorite teams, for example, one study concluded that of dozens of possible reasons, fans’ allegiances stem mainly from a fundamental desire for “belonging and affiliation.” Another insightful ethnography of soccer-mad British fans found that, above all, “The love which the lads feel for their team is simultaneously also love for the feeling of solidarity which they experience every time they attend the game and participate in the communal practice of drinking and singing.”
In other words, the real power of a team logo is its capacity to grant identity and cohere community. This is, therefore, the most valuable commodity that the sports industry can produce: the prospect of unity, in a world where that’s ever more fleeting.
Take Seattle — the Seahawks, more or less, sell back to fans their own camaraderie, what with their famous “12th Man” tradition and #12 jersey vendors. Or take Liverpool FC’s crest motto: “You’ll never walk alone.”
Are there four words in the English language more soothing to modern anxieties?
This community imperative also has been reshaping stadium architecture — as teams from Sacramento to Minneapolis to Denver to Atlanta rip out cheap seats in favor of standing-room-only social areas in which to mingle and graze. NASCAR contemplated redirecting track noise to make races just a bit quieter and therefore more conducive for fans — especially millennials — to talk to one another. And the only way that FanDuel and DraftKings will ever win over casual fans to daily fantasy, I’d wager, is by replicating the chummy vibe that already drives workplace and family leagues.
How about a “Chief Community Officer” installed in the c-suite?
The game, in other words, is not the point. And they’re called Manchester United — not Manchester Atomized — for a reason.
Ultimately, the goal — however far-fetched as it may sound — is to convince fans to care more about the means in the stands than the ends on the scoreboard. (This really can be accomplished. See Cubs, Chicago: 1908-2016.)
At a time when that community is otherwise in short supply, this is an enticing, perhaps even unrivaled product to keep in stock. And sport slings it about as well as any purveyor.
Michael Serazio, an associate professor of communication at Boston College, is the author of “The Power of Sports: Media and Spectacle in American Culture,” from which this column was adapted.
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